I have never had a drinking problem. In fact, I’m a one drink woman because two puts me to sleep, but I had a therapist once plead with me to go an AA meeting.
She had spent months, maybe years, watching me spin inside my own illusion that my pain was somehow different, that my angst was somehow greater, and that no one could understand my personal hell, at least not without feeling a great deal of judgement towards me.
I was pretty far down the rabbit hole of separation. There was me and there was everyone else. Everyone else had it easier. Everyone else felt more at peace. Everyone else was lovable. Everyone else….everyone else…everyone else….but not me. not poor me.
There was you and there was me.
And none of you, could understand or relate to me or my pain.
So my therapist told me to go an AA meeting. She wanted me to sit in a room with other people, who just like me, suffered. People, who if I passed them in the grocery store aisle, I’d assume had it all together. People who both look like and not like me, but nevertheless feel the same feelings and worry the same worries.
I didn’t end up at an AA meeting, but I did end up in group therapy and the desired effect was just the same. And it was there that something fundamental shifted in me. For ten months, every week, I sat in a room with about ten other women all awash in their shame, their obsessions, their stuff. And it looked an awful lot like my own stuff.
Put simply: I woke up to our sameness. I woke up from the illusion that no one would-could understand the agony I experienced. I woke up from the idea that everyone else, but me, had it together.
Let’s go even further back in time…
At the height of my anorexia, more than a decade ago, I was leaving a dental appointment and stepped into the elevator to leave the building. I rode down with a woman whom I had never met—a stranger. She blatantly eyed my lithe frame up and down. Then said to me “Oooh girl, I only wish I had whatever willpower you’ve got.” Not even a week later I went to get a bikini wax, and laying there on the table, vulnerable, naked, and insecure the waxer said to me “You must work out, you have a perfect body.”
In both of these cases gave a pacifying half smile and I said nothing aloud. Yet inside I was screaming: “I don’t eat! You want the perfect body?! Stop eating! You think it’s willpower? No it’s soul-level terror!”
These women had made assumptions about me. They had placed themselves on one side of line and me on the other. In their mind, they were fat. I was not. They had no willpower, I had it spades. They were lazy, I was on top of my game. They were wild pigs and I was smoothly in control.
Yes, there assumptions were wrong, but the point is that I was doing the same thing.
Me and my pain over here, everyone else over there.
And I needed to wake up. The separation was killing me. Literally.
Recently a client confessed that she had taken money from her office’s petty cash box. She’s paid it all back by now, but the shame of her actions still plagued her. While she seethed with self-judgement, I felt nothing but empathy and our shared humanity.
There isn’t any part of her that’s different than me. I’ve been lost. I’ve made choices that hurt other people. I’ve acted from insecurity. And while I consider myself a person with boatloads of integrity, if you went through my (or your) whole life with a fine tooth comb you could easily find where I’ve faltered.
Over the past six months I’ve noticed myself slip a bit into otherizing. It’s been a natural period of creative fallowness and incubation where it’s all too easy to look at other people who are in creative flow and think, once again, that they are somehow better than me. Them over there, me over here.
This matters to me because when I’m lost in this place I feel half alive, half connected, half of service, and half myself. I know that each of us is here to serve by being full and whole, not dimmed to a mere fifty percent.
I’m naming my own otherizing here for myself and for you, should you find yourself drawing this unhelpful line in the sand.
There is no human experience that we have alone. It’s up to each of us to tear town the chambers of isolation that comparison and fear build.
It’s just you and me, them and us—all together.
That person you idolize. That internet guru. That person you loathe. The bully from high-school. The person on the front of this week’s tabloids. The one who beat you out for that job. The suitor who liked you, that you didn’t like back. The noisy neighbor and the perfect-from-the-outside acquaintance. The criminal and do-gooder. Yep, all of us. Our pains and sorrows. Anxieties and dilemmas. Joys and callings. Sacred reverberating essences.
Say it with me: WE.
Here’s a wonderful and related TED talk from Elizabeth Lesser:
This is how I’ve spent much of the past seven months.
While leading six crazy-courageous groups of women through reading and implementing Intuitive Eating, and many of those women through an additional 10-week alumni intensive, I have become a professional jailbreaker.
At the heart of this work is illuminating something I call The Pendulum and then shepherding the participants to often hard to find off-ramp.
The Pendulum is the seemingly never-ending ride between some form of a restrictive state of mind and overconsumption state of mind. A say ‘state of mind’ here and not ‘behaviors’ because we need only psychologically restrict or overconsume to experience the tortuous ride. That is to say that feeling restricted or believing we have overconsumed is far more significant than behaving either way. The mind is a tricky thing. Certainly, we can (and often do) behave these ways, but it isn’t necessary in order to perpetuate The Pendulum and feel the inevitable mental distress that comes with the back and forth swing.
And back and forth we swing.
These two phases of the cycle manifest in a broad array of ways, but all with the same two flavors.
On the one side we feel in control, high even. Above our hungers and with a sense of calm.
On the flip side we’re in chaos, often experiencing some level of shame and self-loathing. We feel out of control.
You probably already know much of this. After all, this is human nature.
We’re hard wired to react to one swing of The Pendulum with the other. (Read: this is not your fault.)
I’m talking about food here, but this is a universal law of energy and applies to many other aspects of our lives.
Back and forth. Restrict. Overconsume. Feeling like we’re being ‘good’ only to be feel that we’re ‘bad’.
Sometimes minute by minute, hour by hour, or month by month. The time between swings isn’t important. What matters is that we can’t cheat The Pendulum. We can’t game the system. As human beings we’re wired to swing one way if we swing the other.
Unless we step off the ride.
The Off Ramp
Every pendulum has a center point. We must pass through this point on our way from one swing to the other.
We can stop the ride if we can only just slow the momentum and rest in that center point.
We do this by meeting the ride with compassion and nonjudgmental observation, this makes it much easier to slow the swing.
We do this by meeting the moment post-overconsumption with a conscious choice to return to the center (i.e. reject restriction).
We do this by returning to our body. The Pendulum swings are perpetuated by an override of our body’s preferences. The off ramp is found when we decide to cease the override.
Again, the polarity of the ride is hard wired into us. We often think that it is our own failing that leads us to over consume, but rather it is our beautiful and human need to both find soothing and avoid famine (real or psychological) that leads us to the ride.
So what does this look like in real life?
It looks like getting clear on your own unique tendencies toward restriction and overconsumption. It looks like getting to know your triggers and the fears and stories that fuel your ride.
Do you tend to restrict certain types of food? Do you restrict eating at certain times of day? Or is it about limiting quantity?
Where do you find yourself most often past the point of comfortable fullness? When do you find yourself feeling like you need to ‘recommit’ to whatever ‘plan’ or ‘program’ or ‘rules’ you identify with?
Identifying our patterns can be tricky as they are often subtle and entirely socially condoned. You can usually sniff them out by following the thread of where you feel guilty around food.
Draw Your Pendulum
Take a piece of paper and a pen. Draw your pendulum. On the left half write out all the ways you see yourself restricting. On the right half write out all the ways you find yourself overconsuming. Again, these can be restrictive or over consumptive thoughts and fixations, not just behaviors. Track your own pendulum swings. Use arrows. Note your flow. Observe how one sets off a chain reaction that leads back to the other.
If you’re tired of the back and forth, commit to returning to center as often as it takes. (It took me a solid two years of practice) Commit to taking the off ramp as often as you’re able to. Commit to paying loving attention. Commit to not blaming yourself for The Pendulum and accepting that it’s part of how our species operates. Commit to restrict nothing but restriction itself. Commit to using common sense instead of sensationalism when it comes to what to eat. Commit to choosing happiness over thinness. Commit to choosing real life instead of chasing perfection. Commit to being smarter than the false promises of restriction. Commit to breaking yourself out of jail.
Freedom is possible and it’s worth committing to it’s pursuit.
“I am never full.”
“The pain will never stop.”
“There isn’t ever enough love.”
“I will never not want to eat the entire grocery store.”
Many of us walk around with the sensation of deep emptiness.
With that sensation is often a fierce belief that there will never be enough.
Be it food or love—too often we walk the earth feeling as though we are a bottomless pit.
One strategy we use is to try to fill it. With entire bags of chips. With another pair of shoes. With 5 o’clock bottles of wine.
On the flip side, we attempt to cover the bottomless pit with a band aid tale of having minimal needs. This where we tell ourselves we’re fine to subsist on crumbs—literal or metaphoric. We keep it together. We stick to the diet. We keep our muscles toned. We don’t need a partner, or attention, or chocolate cake, we’re fine—or so we tell ourselves.
The sad part is the bottomless pit is an illusion. One that has us running in all directions for temporary salves that aren’t sustainable and never leave us feeling very satisfied.
Your local child protective services agency has shown up at your doorstep with two foster children you are charged with taking care of for a year. They tell you that the children came from a home where there was barely anything to eat.
Over the first few days you notice that one of the children eats until they are sick. They eat quickly and with an anxiety that clearly belays their fear of there not being having enough.
The other child eats very little. Nibbling on this or that but not taking enough sustenance or enjoying the delicious food you have offered. This child is attempting to exert some control where they can. When they wasn’t enough in the past, they told themselves that they didn’t need it as a way to feel a level of control where none was.
And all of this makes sense.
Neither of them can be sure that there will be enough. They can’t yet trust that there will be more food anytime they want, and that they don’t have to eat until they’re sick or continue to deny themselves nourishment.
What you find over the weeks to come though, as they learn that there is enough food and they have as much as they want, when they want, in any quantity they want, is that they normalize. They are each able to eat with enjoyment, relaxation, and able to stop when they are physically sated.
Are you getting the metaphor?
Our lives are the home where there will always be enough food.
The question is whether we are willing to heal the trauma of our deprivation by ceasing to deny ourselves. It is we who too often deny ourselves the love we long for. It is we who too often deny ourselves the food or pleasure we hunger for.
The result is that we feel like a bottomless pit.
And all along we had our hand on our own spigot able to turn it on and let it flow.
The trick is to turn the spigot on and don’t turn it off until we’ve had enough – and we find the point of ‘enough’ after a period of reconditioning ourselves to know that there will always be more.
We must let it flow long enough to teach the part of us that is traumatized from deprivation that there will always be enough. What we find when we do this is that that part of us relaxes.
What we find is that the bottomless pit, the one that never existed in the first place, disappears.
“Poison and medicine are often the same thing, given in different proportions” tweet
Alice Sebold tweet
One of the most common traits (and pitfalls) I see is dichotomous thinking – or seeing everything as either black or white.
There is a frenzy to our lives. A striving, masculine energy to achieve, improve, and purify.
Many of the women I work with come to me when they can no longer bare the tightrope walk their life has become. Slaving in pursuit of being ‘good’, being ‘liked’, and being ‘beautiful’.
But life isn’t a tightrope walk, unless we make it that.
Nothing is good or bad, unless we name it that.
Green vegetables and white sugar are not opposites, nor are they enemies.
Everything is everything, depending on the circumstances. Depending on where we are standing and what is needed now.
I’m calling out for less purity and more messy holding of both. Less pigeon holing. Less throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
This requires paying attention.
When we think in binaries, we get to sleepwalk through life. We decide ahead of time which category something fits into and we live accordingly. No need to reevaluate, it’s all already been decided.
Real Housewives of Anywhere? Pathetic waste of time.
Homemade food? Holy.
And on and on.
If we could use our Martha Stewart label makers on life, I’m sure we would.
But life isn’t black or white. It’s every shade of gray, and pink, and green, and yellow that can be found. And those colors change moment by moment.
This requires we pay attention. This requires we get comfortable with an unlabeled life.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
and I’ll add…
There is a time for Facebook and a time for being miles away from a screen.
There is a time for zafu cushions and a time to find stillness in the least likely place.
No one thing is arbitrarily better than another.
If you want to know if something is medicine or poison you must listen.
Your heart will tell you. Is it soft?
Your lungs will tell you. Are they tight?
Your flesh will you you. Is it supple?
If you listen.
Sensations of ease, joy, enoughness, and vitality are signs of a medicine.
Sensations of deadness, contraction, and insecurity are signs of poison.
Right now, not yesterday or last year, what’s your medicine?
Today, mine is shaved legs and a new sundress. Offering myself sustainably. Crisp and cold caesar salad. Haim’s The Wire. Writing only when I have something to say.
And you? What’s your medicine? What’s your poison?
When not to trust yourself
When you think you’re not enough or unworthy
When you think no one will understand
When you think you’re all alone
What not to eat
Things that don’t taste good
Things that are burnt beyond recognition
Things that are more ‘should’ than ‘want’
What not to do in relationships
Attempt to ‘fix’ people
Seek intimacy without vulnerability
Expect another to treat you better than you treat yourself
How not to walk through the world
Like we don’t need you here
Like you are superior to others
Like you are inferior to others
Like tomorrow is promised
The following is an excerpt from one of my favorite books for any woman seeking to become well-fed. This particular passage is the prologue and when I read it, back in 2003, I was so moved that I had it printed on a t-shirt. I just needed to plaster these words on my chest because they captured so much of what I was awakening to in and of my own body. If these words cause you to have a certain kind of ache, then I ask you not to tune that out. If these words stir you, a part of you knows that they are medicine, truth, and art all in one.
Pass them on.
The women linger at the water’s edge, and they are stunning in the most unusual way: large women, voluptuous, abundant, delighted. They lounge along the river bank, they lift their arms toward the sun, their hair ripples down their backs, which are smooth and broad and strong. tweet
There is softness in the way they move, and also strength and sensuality, as though they revel in the feel of their own heft and substance.
Step back from the canvas, and observe, think, feel. tweet
This is an image of bounty, a view of female physicality in which a woman’s hungers are both celebrated and undifferentiated, as though all her appetites are of a piece, the physical and the emotional entwined and given equal weight. Food is love on this landscape, and love is sex, and sex is connection, and connection is food; appetites exist in a full circle, or in a sonata where eating and touching and making love and feeling close are all distinct chords that nonetheless meld with and complement one another. tweet
Renoir, who created this image, once said that were it not for the female body, he never could have become a painter. This is clear: there is love for women in each detail of the canvas, and love for self, and there is joy, and there is a degree of sensual integration that makes you want to weep, so beautiful it seems, and so elusive. tweet
“…and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”
— Walt Whitman
Growing up just outside Washington, DC resulted in my childhood having it’s fair share of visits to historical sites, such as Civil War battlefields, like Gettysburg.
If you’ve ever been to a memorial site, especially one where great loss actually took place, you know that you can feel it. What you’re standing on at these places is sacred ground and each has a powerful energetic fingerprint. Perhaps you’ve felt it while visiting the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, Auschwitz in Poland, or The Killing Fields Museum in Cambodia.
Sadly the world is full of sites where atrocities took place and left an imprint, physical or energetic.
In my early twenties as I was emerging victorious from my own battle with anorexia the only way I could relate to my body was as this sacred ground. While not visible to the eye, my body felt like modern day Gettysburg battlefield.
This flesh—my flesh—was where a war had been fought and won.
And what this meant to me was that anything less than sacred awe was not good enough.
In the years since then I have encountered in my life and in the lives of those I work with serious trauma. Childhood abuse. Sexual assault. Mental illness. Loss of parents and children. Battles with cancer. Amputation.
And it doesn’t take catastrophic incidents like these to leave trauma. Life is traumatic.
Life is traumatic and our bodies bare the brunt of it. They are our sensory input tool and they are where we experience (or repress) emotion. Our bodies are the tools or fight or flight…or freeze. Our bodies are the recipient of heinous cultural norms. Our bodies, depending on where we live in the world, aren’t even always considered our own.
Life is also miraculous. The ways in which our body heals, allows for connection, creates new life, and enables our lives is marvelous.
All this is to say: feel the sacred ground you are living in.
Feel that you are sacred in every cell of your body.
Stand in awe of not just what has happened on your ‘land’ but on what you have survived and created.
Consider reverence as a new template for how you inhabit this flesh of yours.
Like Whitman says, your “flesh shall be a great poem”.
My mom is a bath taker. I think the bathtub became her place of refuge when my sister and I were young. She even mastered the art of reading a book while bathing without getting the book wet. I always marveled at this. She likes her baths extra hot. I marvel at this too.
She used Avon Skin So Soft bath oil and that scent is forever linked to her in my mind. It left her skin silky and the tub slick with oil such that we had to be careful not to slip.
I wasn’t ever much of a bath taker until last year when I was hit with six months of tonsillitis (and a tonsillectomy). In that time of great discomfort nothing soothed me like being submerged in hot water.
In that time, where I’d take maybe two or three baths a day, I fell in love with this ritual.
In speaking to my landlady one day she told me that if you’re going to have rental property and you want female tenants that you’d better have a bathtub.
When I lived with roommates I never took baths as the communal shower never felt private, even when I was alone in it–or clean enough, even when I scrubbed it.
In my current home I have a peach bath tub surrounded by pink tiles from the 50′s. In my boyfriends place there is a newer white tub that gets professionally cleaned once a month. Neither allow for much neck support in a reclined position, but they’re big enough and deep enough.
My advice for bathing:
Before you get in, shut the door to the bathroom so the steam is captured. Lay out a fluffy, clean towel (a bath sheet if you have one) where you can reach it and put a bath mat down. Light a candle. Using a cup or recycled yogurt container, rinse out the tub. It need not be hotel-perfect, just free of stray hairs and such.
Plug the drain and begin the fill. Always a touch hotter than is comfortable. It will cool. Add any bath oil, salts, or bubbles that you like. Or nothing at all. Water is enough.
Turn the lights out and get in.
Pull the shower curtain closed if you can and let the water run until it’s just high enough to cover your ears, but not your face when you lay supine. Lay back. Listen to your own heart beat.
Notice how you no longer know what ‘cold to the bone’ even means.
Stay there. Release any urge to get out and be productive.
Receive. Soak. Shut the world out.
You might find yourself craving a mother. A mother to wrap you up in that towel after you’ve stayed in long enough. A mother to comb out your hair and prepare some warm milk. A mother to perch on the edge of the tub and listen as your uncertainties get washed away. You can be this mother.
Never get out before your fingers have turned to wrinkled prunes.
Never restrict yourself to bathing only after sundown or in winter.
On occasion listen to music or watch a movie simultaneously.
It’s quiet delightful to recline in extra hot water on a lazy brisk afternoon and watch whatever it is that makes you giggle.
Exfoliate. With scrub or pumice, let go of what’s old and dead.
Shave your legs only ever for yourself.
Make a point to come here often, especially when you are tired, contemplative, questioning, fried, chilled, afraid, melancholy, or dirty.
Most importantly though: never live anywhere without a bathtub. That would be like losing god’s phone number.